The Beauties and the Beasts of Yasuzo Masumura

An eye-opening retrospective reveals the audacious vision and uncategorizable range of the Japanese director.
Jessica Kiang

Blind Beast (Yasuzo Masumura, 1969).

You could start cradled like the kidnapped woman in the undulating foam curves that resemble a gigantic female torso in Blind Beast (1969). You could make your approach via the swing of a Super-8 camera towards the steps of a courthouse at the beginning of A Wife Confesses (1961). You could drift into A Cheerful Girl (1957) through the kitchen window, onto a table laden with groceries and bottles of fluorescent orange soda-pop. You could inject yourself like morphine into Red Angel (1966), seep like body ink into the skin of Spider Tattoo (1966), or slide into the fevered bloodstream of All Mixed Up (1964) like powdered poison swallowed from a kite-paper pouch. Whether you arrive on the tip of a blade or the cusp of a kiss, there is no wrong place to start with Yasuzo Masumura, the postwar Japanese director whose astonishing accomplishment should by rights have him mentioned in the same breath as his more internationally famous compatriots: Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Ichikawa, Oshima, Imamura, and Suzuki.

There's no wrong place to start because there's no particularly right place. Masumura's endlessly revelatory 60-odd title filmography is eclectic, full of switchbacks and switch-ups in genre, tone, and aesthetic. There's no obvious access point that will set you up for an easy downhill slalom through a neatly flagged taxonomy of themes and styles. Despite working within Japan's midcentury studio system—once he'd returned from a stint studying at Rome's famous Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia—and despite delivering more than two-thirds of his catalogue for Daiei Film (one of the shingles that comprised Japanese cinema's Golden Age oligopoly), Masumura is unruly as a rule. 

That uncategorizability may be what has kept him so underappreciated relative to his canonized peers. In a 1999 dialogue with Jonathan Rosenbaum, the US critic primarily responsible for whatever reputation Masumura has accrued in Anglophone cinephile circles, Japanese critic Shigehiko Hasumi said, "It’s difficult to talk about him because…there’s no representative film." Even the works to which I'll be mainly referring here, the 11 titles in the superb Masumura retrospective curated by programmer Joseph Fahim at the 2023 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, cover such diverse ground that only a foolhardy commentator would begin any paragraph with "the films of Yasuzo Masumura are…"

The films of Yasuzo Masumura are, insofar as the distinction is useful, movies. Churning out three or four a year throughout the 1960s, he was a mainstream filmmaker, employed by Daiei to feed a ravenous public cinematic appetite, which had been whetted during the postwar boom in movie theater construction and attendance. Another reason his artistry can be underestimated: it comes in accessible, enjoyable packages, in films designed for widespread appeal. Which also meant that Masumura could turn on a dime, encoding responsive social critique into his nimble entertainments in a manner not always true of more classically defined auteurs.

Kisses (Yasuzo Masumura, 1957).

So it was during the heyday of the "youth movie" that Masumura made his directorial debut with Kisses (1957), an irrepressibly youthful film that scuds along so lightly it could have been made on roller skates. Yet while the simple love story between delivery boy Kinichi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) and artists' model Akiko (Hitomi Nozoe) feels as breezy as a seaside motorbike ride and pivots on fluttering scraps of plot like an address written on a paper napkin, there is a gentle melancholy pinning it down at the edges. Kinichi has a surly relationship with his absent mother. Akiko needs money and is contemplating the last resort of prostitution. Their meet-cute happens at a prison where both their fathers are serving time for white-collar crimes. Their connection is delightful, their chemistry made of glances and dances, but the backdrop is economic privation, broken families and generational rebellion—a critique of the postwar society teenagers were inheriting from their distracted parents.

In his 1999 essay Discovering Yasuzo Masumura, Rosenbaum identifies commonalities between Masumura's films and those of various American directors, while self-effacingly cautioning against the "disagreeable American inclination of finding certain traits in other cultures … interesting only when they resemble American traits." Admonition aside, there is something of Nicholas Ray's Rebel without a Cause (1955) in Kisses, just as Douglas Sirk can be detected in the gloriously saturated colors of A Cheerful Girl  (1957),aka The Blue Sky Maiden, Masumura's second film and, to my eyes, his first masterpiece.

A Cheerful Girl marks the first of 20 collaborations between Masumura and actress Ayako Wakao, whom he had met while working as an assistant director on Mizoguchi's last film, Street of Shame (1956), in which Wakao stars. Their acrimonious parting would eventually see  Masumura refer to her in a 1970 interview with Cahiers du cinéma as "selfish and calculating." But in perhaps a cosmically prescient refutation of that assessment, here Wakao plays Yuko, a schoolgirl of such preternatural good nature, despite her callous mistreatment by snobbish relatives, that she seems at times to be lit from within. Yet her incandescent goodness doesn't cloy. Indeed, it lends the finale where Yuko confronts the father who abandoned her, remarkable transgressive traction: Seldom have such blunt, unforgiving, blame-apportioning words been delivered with such definitive sweetness. Ray and Sirk leaned into their stories' more tragic aspects; in his first films, Masumura leaned away, delivering deep dramatic satisfaction with the lightest, most buoyant of hearts. 

Shooting an acidic arrow right through that heart, though, the following year brought Giants and Toys (1958), a self-consciously wacky satire impossible not to compare, in both its garish aesthetic and its marketing-farce malarkey, to Frank Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). The shaggy tale of three caramel manufacturers vying for market domination, it follows working-class girl Kyoko (Hitomi Nozoe) whose rotten teeth make her an unlikely but inspired choice as a poster girl, but whose subsequent celebrity ends up gazumping the very execs who promoted her. The film has its pastichey pleasures, and though its satire now has about as much bite as Kyoko herself, its reflection of the anxieties of this historical moment, as cutthroat corporate values began to invade the private sphere, is invaluable. 

That shrewd perspective on Japanese corporate culture would recur subsequently in the noirish industrial espionage thriller Black Test Car (1962). In gorgeous black-and-white, all hard onyx edges and dark suits, there unfurls a gripping account of spying and double-dealing between two rival car companies, each willing to resort even to sabotage to ensure they get their new model to market first. Masumura proved well-suited to this sort of sleek, masculine drama, so it's no surprise that he'd return to the spy movie, this time shorn of any corporate veneer, with blackhearted drama Nakano Spy School (1966). Handsome officer Jiro (Raizô Ichikawa) abandons his fiancée Yukiko (Mayumi Ogawa) when he's recruited into a newly established school for spies, then discovers that Yukiko's desperation to find him has made her turn enemy agent. The surprise here is that Jiro, the "hero," is so despicable: His final, terrible betrayal seems less the agonized action of a man making an impossible choice, than it is evidence of the moral abnegation rife among those granted flag-draped impunity.

Irezumi - Spider Tattoo (Yasuzo Masumura, 1966).

Yukiko's tragic fate is an interesting introduction to Masumura's view of women. It's a feminism at war with itself, pinging between a highly eroticized male gaze and a strangely progressive identification with his female leads. Manji (1964) and Irezumi - Spider Tattoo (1966) , are lurid stories of twisted desire that twist especially hard around Wakao's embodiment of voracious female sexual drive. In the former, she plays the central object of lust in a bisexual love quadrangle, whose minxish deceptions deliver her increasingly paranoid lovers—male and female—to drug-addled ruin and suicide. In the latter, she plays a woman sold into prostitution and forcibly tattooed, who gradually succumbs to the man-eating urges of the spider that adorns her back. Succumbs to—or perhaps is released by: in Wakao's rivetingly ambivalent, malevolent portrayal, there's no way to tell.

But perhaps the most convincingly complex of Masumura's women is the heroine of the terrific A Wife Confesses (1961) in which a stunningly subtle Wakao plays Ayako, who is on trial for the murder of her husband during a climbing expedition. A favorite of Rosenbaum's—who calls it "Masumura's supreme masterpiece"—A Wife Confesses operates in the Hollywood-friendly mode of the courtroom drama, while also nodding to the European tradition of intricately psychologized portraits of destructive desire. Trapped in a cycle of self-fulfilling patriarchal prophecy, Ayako herself does not seem to know if she cut the rope as a survival tactic or as the sublimation of a subconscious urge to be rid of her husband and free to pursue new love. Rosenbaum sees fragments of Resnais; Hasumi mentions Visconti's Ossessione (1943). For my part, I was struck by its effortless freshness: The films, both also dealing with a fatal fall, that I thought of most while watching A Wife Confesses were Park Chan-wook's Decision to Leave (2022) and Justine Triet's Anatomy of a Fall (2023).

The CinemaScope A Wife Confesses is also among the most handsome Masumura movies, which is saying something for a director who, despite avowedly favoring story over image, rarely made a less-than-beautiful film. He disliked the manipulative, actorly close-up and seldom featured pictorialist landscapes—prohibitions which birth their own aesthetic, especially as shot by Masumura regular Setsuo Kobayashi, the cinematographer on A Wife Confesses, Manji, Hoodlum Soldier (1965), Red Angel (1966), and The Double Suicide of Sonezaki (1978). Negative space, diptych compositions, and deep focus often isolate a face or a form in one section of the screen, reducing the rest of the frame to abstraction: a blank wall, a darkened hallway, the looming back of a black-clad man. This precision, the odd, canted angles, and careful blocking all work to make Masumura's widescreen images seem roomier than their dimensions. A person could get lost within them. 

Certainly, that's what happens in Blind Beast (1969), the nastiest of Masumura's pinku films (a genre of softcore pulp that became wildly popular in Japan in the mid-1960s) shot in an appropriately decaying, necrotic color palette. A blind sculptor kidnaps model Aki (Mako Midori) and stashes her in his stygian, Dalí-meets-Repulsion warehouse-studio. Aki's deranged pivot from unwilling victim to orchestrator of her own eventual death-by-mutilation is standard sexploitation schlock, but again it is the positioning of Masumura's sympathies that makes the grubby storyline compelling. Where he could have delighted in the objectivizing, fetishizing spectacle of the helpless female capitulating to the pawing and groping of her male captor, instead the power dynamic shifts from below as Aki gradually eclipses her tormentor in perversity. As with Spider Tattoo and Manji, Masumura subjects his pinku heroine to sadistic psychosexual fantasy without having her submit to masculine dominance. It is masochism without submissiveness, depravity without degradation. They may be initiated into deviancy by an act of male violation, but by the end, these twisted sisters are in charge of warping their own destinies. 

Hoodlum Soldier (Yasuzo Masumura, 1965).

Blind Beast ends on a gruesome note. But for nihilistic grisliness it doesn't hold a candle to Red Angel (1966), a bizarre hybrid of anti-war film and female martyrdom narrative in which Wakao manages to give agency to a character who could otherwise seem pitiful, abject. This is Sakura, a wartime nurse who fights to save the life of her rapist, performs missions of sexual mercy on an amputee, and falls in love with an impotent, morphine-addicted surgeon. Their stolen night of passion in a cholera-ravaged camp is a feverish sequence, made all the stranger by the pervasive sickly mood, all festering wounds and buckets of dismembered feet.

The anti-war sentiment in Red Angel is blunt, bludgeoning; arguably, it comes across more powerfully in the brilliant Hoodlum Soldier (1965). This is my personal favorite Masumura film, an extraordinary mash-up—or maybe M*A*S*H*-up—of buddy comedy, military drama, and scathing, Catch-22-style satire, that would be sui generis if it hadn't spawned eight sequels. It's the tale of the odd-couple bond between bookish corporal Arita (Takahiro Tamura) and boorish private Omiya (Shintaro Katsu) in a Manchurian training camp, and a gonzo miracle of tonal coherence, despite veering between slapstick comedy and tragedy. Male friendship is rare in Masumura's oeuvre, and it makes this knockabout, cynical, war-is-dumb movie into one of this determinedly unsentimental filmmaker's most touching films.

Hoodlum Soldier is atypical, but every Masumura film is atypical. He mastered every genre, and subverted every genre. He championed the aberrant, the individual, disdaining the more expected cinematic quest for universal expressions of shared humanity. In his Cahiers interview, Masumura comes across as irascible and impatient—an impatience I feel with myself for having only now embarked on this exploration. Next year will mark Masumura's centenary, and with luck that will cue a new wave of long-overdue appreciation, because it's been 99 years since he was born and 37 since he died. He directed 59 films in under 25 years. What the hell are we waiting for?

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Yasuzo MasumuraKarlovy VaryKarlovy Vary 2023Festival Coverage
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.